Why Are Some Democracies More Equal Than Others?

Gilbert Cavanaugh


Almost any time neoconservatism is discussed, whether in a positive or negative light, it is treated as a kind of hegemonic monolith that has not changed since the last generation of its adherents began gaining prestige in the 1970s — or even since it began taking form decades earlier. Obviously this is a mistake, but sorting out its various “waves” is a task for another time (and likely a task for Paul Gottfried).  In an attempt to eschew the complex pedigree of neoconservatives in the last half-century, I will, for the moment, only discuss the post-9/11 variety of neocons.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th proved to be a crystallizing moment for neocons. Since the end of the Cold War, they had lacked not only political power, but more importantly — a driving purpose. While vainly trying to unify under an “anti-Clinton” banner, they meandered into intellectual self-indulgence in an attempt to regain the drive they had possessed while battling the USSR. Not content to rest on their laurels, odd proposals to re-capture “national greatness” came about, similarly, bizarre calls to invade Africa popped out of thin air. Like their Trotskyite forbearers, they became a fairly insulated bunch that spoke to few people outside their own circles, and were happy to theorize and pontificate amongst one another, with their thoughts steadily drifting away from any tangible political reality.

In 2001, when Bush Jr. came to power, they did too, but they still lacked a unifying goal. When a new, seemingly existential, threat crashed its way to the crosshairs of global attention, all of this changed. Digressing slightly, I will admit that pinning down a precise program or doctrine to the neocons can prove somewhat difficult. Part of this comes from their willingness to shape shift — such as their jump from Democrat Scoop Jackson’s 1972 presidential bid to Ronald Reagan’s cabinet less than a decade later. Another more important difficulty comes from the fact that it has become somewhat fashionable for neoconservatives to deny their own existence. It reminds me of a Marxist adage I hear from time to time: “An ideology is hegemonic when its adherents deny its existence”. Jonah Goldberg penned a whole three-part series of articles shortly after the Iraq War began that claimed no such thing existed — this is hilariously disproven by how many neocons openly and proudly label themselves as such.

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Regardless, a post-9/11 manifesto does exist — serving as a replacement for Jeane Kirkpatrick’s classic Dictatorships and Double Standards in a world with no USSR. It came as a speech at an American Enterprise Institute gathering in spring of 2004 by Charles Krauthammer, entitled “Democratic Realism”. In it he describes the new “unipolar” world and begs the question of what American foreign policy should be in such an era. He then rehashes old neocon attacks on isolationism, liberal internationalism, and realism. Afterwards, he describes “Democratic Globalism” — which he sees as a kind of “hard” liberal internationalism that serves to describe those who are (according to him) inaccurately called “neocons”. His description of this ideology has many trappings of neconservatism: it implies that Truman and Reagan were of the same ideological arc, claims jihadists are the new Communists, has an ahistorical fetish for democracy, and strongly advocates war. Here are some of its key passages:

Democratic globalism sees as the engine of history not the will to power but the will to freedom. And while it has been attacked as a dreamy, idealistic innovation, its inspiration comes from the Truman Doctrine of 1947, the Kennedy inaugural of 1961, and Reagan’s “evil empire” speech of 1983….

Today, post-9/11, we find ourselves in a similar existential struggle but with a different enemy: not Soviet communism, but Arab-Islamic totalitarianism, both secular and religious….

The trouble with such a foreign policy, he goes on to say, is:

[I]ts universalism, its open-ended commitment to human freedom, its temptation to plant the flag of democracy everywhere. It must learn to say no. And indeed, it does say no. But when it says no to Liberia, or Congo, or Burma, or countenances alliances with authoritarian rulers in places like Pakistan or, for that matter, Russia, it stands accused of hypocrisy.

Ergo, Krauthammer declares that there must be a slight tweaking of an otherwise perfect idea:

Where to intervene? Where to bring democracy? Where to nation-build? I propose a single criterion: where it counts.

Call it democratic realism. And this is its axiom: We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity—meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom.

Where does it count? Fifty years ago, Germany and Japan counted. Why? Because they were the seeds of the greatest global threat to freedom in midcentury—fascism—and then were turned, by nation building, into bulwarks against the next great threat to freedom, Soviet communism.

Where does it count today? Where the overthrow of radicalism and the beginnings of democracy can have a decisive effect in the war against the new global threat to freedom, the new existential enemy, the Arab-Islamic totalitarianism that has threatened us in both its secular and religious forms for the quarter-century since the Khomeini revolution of 1979. [italics in the original]

Another similarity this speech bears to Kirkpatrick’s famous (infamous?) Dictatorships and Double Standards, is that it boldly and proudly articulates an idea that had already been put into practice. In 1979, Kirkpatrick argued that the US should openly support military dictatorships so long as they were anti-Communist, which the US had been doing already for at least a quarter century. In Krauthammer’s speech, he claims that neocons should begin forcibly transforming nations into democracies — but not all nations — just the important ones in the Middle East. Since his speech came in 2004, all of those things had already been set in motion. Denying the existence of neoconservatism was already in vogue, the invasion of Iraq had already occurred, suggestions for similar invasions in Africa had already been passed on, and neocons had already set much of this in motion.

Krauthammer himself had been a signatory on a letter to President Bush (dated September 20th, 2001) that had urged him to invade Iraq. The organization behind the letter was Project for the New American Century, an undeniably neoconservative group chaired by none other than William Kristol, son of Irving Kristol. The group had sent a similar letter to President Clinton in 1998, and was brimming with the most prominent of neocons: Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, and Norman Podhertz to name a few. Furthermore, many of the signatories of both the letter to Bush and the letter to Clinton (including Krauthammer) found themselves employed by the Bush administration in short order.

The attempt is often made to detect how deeply “Jewish” neoconservatism is, and this article is another one of those attempts. In the current political climate, all such investigations should be filtered through Krauthammer — if the name of the game is “democracy where it counts” then we must honestly ask, “where does it count?” and see if our answer matches that of the neocons. Regardless of how Jewish this global democratic ideology is, I oppose it, but for now I will take it at face value. Would a secular foreign policy of “democratic realism” designed to satisfy the interests of non-Jews match the program that has been advocated by neocons since late 2001? Let us examine the matter step by step.

Krauthammer’s assertion that a dose of realism is needed in any attempt to democratize the world is obviously true — no sane person would advocate arbitrarily removing dictators in Central Africa, South America and South-East Asia in quick succession out of principle. However his region of choice, the Middle East, merits more scrutiny. Superficially there is some sense to it — that region’s ability to breed Jihadists is unique, and the jihadists do represent at least something of a threat to Western Democracies. But are there larger threats?

The obvious answer would be China and Russia; both (particularly China) are undemocratic powerhouses that do a great deal to undermine the idea of a democratic planet. Yet, any dose of realism would preclude an invasion of either nation, or any truly bellicose posturing. What would have to be done is exactly what is being done in both East Asia and Eastern Europe — find neighboring democracies and bolster them up with massive foreign aid, excellent arms trade deals, mutual protection treaties, and even American boots on the ground. Though one could go over these policies with a fine-toothed comb and find inconsistencies (Georgia in ’08, a greater focus on Central Asia, etc.), it would seem that neocons have developed a meaningful and consistent post-Cold War “containment” strategy regarding China and Russia.

Aside from the looming bear and dragon, few democracies in danger come to mind. The Dominican Republic is not threatened by Cuba, Namibia is not threatened by Angola, and Indonesia is not threatened by Malaysia. There are a few minor disputes neocons could take stronger stances on: making sure democratic Senegal is not threatened by the current chaos in Mali, or clearly backing democratic Chile whenever Socialist Bolivia begins making absurd demands — but such minor regional quibbles do not make for good litmus tests.

So if Russia and China are being more or less contained, Latin America is stable, and sub-Saharan Africa is (any realist would have to admit) beyond meaningful salvation until further notice — than what is a realist with democracy in his heart to do? This leads us right back into the Muslim nations that stretch from North Africa to Pakistan. Once again, the superficial complaint of it being a hotbed for Jihadism is correct — and were the region to be democratized it could serve as a meaningful chess piece against China and Russia. So the region is perhaps not a bad choice after all.

But where? The region just described is quite vast, and each nation in it has something uniquely vile about their government that could make it an easy target in an idealist’s mind. So which nations should be the most directly confronted? Neocons generally seem to choose their targets based on their relative threat to Israel. Yes, the elephant in the essay has made its appearance at last — Israel. The reason for this, so say the neocons, is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. The critique of this point I most often hear within dissident right circles is, “and what about Turkey, Lebanon, and Palestine!” Though there are many intelligent and respectable people who make this critique, it is not an airtight argument.

Turkey underwent a military coup as recently as 1997, and has quite a history of internal military interventions. One man (Erdogan) has held the executive for ten years (and his political party for even longer) — a rare occurrence in democracies. Even before the recent protests, state crackdowns on journalists and dissent in general along with violations of property rights had been making headlines frequently. Lebanon also proves unconvincing, having been under military control until 2005. Even then, the government has not been able to meaningfully control its own territory — much of which is intermittently under the thumb of Hezbollah. When a government cannot lay down the law within its own borders — it stops being a “government” in any meaningful sense – democratic or otherwise. Palestine — both the West Bank and Gaza Strip rank even lower than Lebanon in terms of a government (elected or not) having a meaningful social contract with its citizens. When a democracy is not stable, it will not be a democracy for very long. Israel, whatever you may think of it, has been stable and effectively democratic since its birth in 1948.

As such, if the US were to express a kind of militaristic solidarity to all of its democratic brothers, protecting Israel against the threats of totalitarian minded terrorist groups and enemy states would make sense. Strengthening the case for such a claim would be the proximity of Israel’s cultural values to those of the contemporary West — particularly when compared to its neighbors. One of the reasons neocons champion democracy and the West is because both tolerate feminism, gays, etc. I doubt anyone would make the claim that LGBTTIQQ2SA (or whatever) rights are more respected in any Arab state than they are in Israel. So once again, the neoconservative case for standing with Israel can thus far be understood in a purely ideological sense, since they have proven time and time again that on social issues they are complete leftists.

What does disrupt the Israeli obsession is not any fault of Israel itself, but the existence of India. If America is to support its democratic brothers across the globe, then India should be receiving much more attention than it does. Not only has India been a democracy for about as long as Israel, but the forces that threaten it are much stronger than the ones seeking to destroy Israel. Neconservative publications have been warning the US of Iran’s impending nuclear capabilities for years, but India’s long-standing nemesis Pakistan has openly possessed nuclear weapons for at least a decade and a half, not to mention China, which has had them for almost as long as Russia. Furthermore, India has been militarily engaged with both those nations, not just recently, but regularly. The now forgotten Sino-Indian War occurred in the early ’60s, multiple wars have been fought against Pakistan since 1947, and skirmishes/stand-offs with both Pakistan and China still happen from time to time.

Just as India’s enemy nations are more threatening than Israel’s, so too are her terrorists. Not only does India suffer from a large number of deadly attacks from Jihadists, but she also is the target of Maoist terrorist attacks (which often target Americans and American interests). Many people are surprised to learn that outside of Europe and America, there is still a meaningful number of Communists, but such is the case — and India is something of a battlefield for them. Finally, nearly every American foreign policy wonk (neocon or otherwise) notes the importance of keeping Pakistan in check — could not India prove useful in that regard, at the very least in the capacity of swapping intelligence information?

The issue of numbers should also be brought up, India is big, with a population well over one billion, it ranks second only to China in population size. If the neoconservative goal is to democratize the world regardless of creed, race, etc, then the quest is a materialistic one, and the safety of an enormous democracy should be prioritized over that of a small one. If Israel is destroyed or falls under an autocracy, about 8 million people lose their democratic rule — with India that number is 1.2 billion.

So why does Israel receive billions in American foreign aid while India sits in the millions? Why do so many neocons talk of the absolute need to protect Israel, while not India? The current obsession with Israel would look justified if as much time was spent obsessing over Indial — but that is far from the case.

Some may claim that the “project” of protecting and bolstering India would be too enormous to take on — but that has never dismayed Americans, much less neocons. Fighting Communism on a global scale was an enormous project, as was fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan simultaneously, as was conquering everything to the West of the Appalachian Mountains. An unwillingness to anger China could theoretically be another reason to tread lightly in supporting India — but America does not let that fear get in the way of always backing Japan and Taiwan, so that critique is a non-starter as well.

If even a superficial comparison of Israel to India through the eyes of a democratic globalist makes each seem at least as important as the other, then the question of course becomes, “why Israel” since in reality, those “democratic globalists” have chosen Israel. Well, it is a touchy thing to say, and since Carl Bernstein admits that he can get away with saying “it” since he himself is a Jew, I will let him finish for me.

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